Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Narrative of Grace

A picture of a much younger Brady who fell asleep against his will when he was "not at all sleepy" and did NOT need a nap
Bedtime is not my favorite.  I had pictures in my head of how it should be before I had kids: starting with warm bubble baths for giggling, sweet-smelling children, followed by cozy pajamas and reading books snuggled in bed.  There would be kisses, and they would drift off to dreamland while John and I would have the time to catch up on our day and have some down time for ourselves.  Then we actually had children.  And these children, unlike their parents, HATE the thought of sleep.  Have I mentioned that we went four straight years without sleeping through the night, and it's been over four years since either of them took naps without being sick?  They will try any tactic to delay the inevitable (and in my mind, steal the few precious bits of "free time" we have).  I relate it to the "whack-a-mole game" that Glennon Melton of Momastery describes.  Instead of sweet dreams and sweet freedom, we take turns attending to shouted demands from the upstairs dictators ("I need water!"  "I need you to lie down with me!"  "I'm not sleepy!"  "I need a light!"  "NO!  I can't sleep with the light on."  "I'm too hot/cold/hungry.")  until one of us snaps.

Each night at bedtime, Brady declares he wants to hug me forever.  He's a very sweet and kindhearted boy whose love language is physical touch, but I know this is essentially a delay tactic.  The other night, when I was able to extract myself after a few minutes of snuggling, he stopped me by asking, "When did I hug you and daddy for the first time?"  I paused to think, but couldn't come up with an answer.  I can remember his first (open mouthed) kisses, and I faithfully wrote down most every milestone (first step, first tooth) in the baby book, but this is one I couldn't trace.  And not for the first time in my parenting journey, one of my children brought me to the realization that maybe I have it all wrong.  Perhaps the most important milestones are the ones we let slip by.

I'm a follow-the-rules type person.  I'm a planner that loves a checklist, and parenting has provided this in the form of developmental guidelines.  Since pregnancy, I've had the notion that if I followed the checklists and guidelines, my children would fall right into line and meet the expectations.  All this has truly done is set me up for disappointment.  Not because my children have failed, but because I have held them to standards that are more about me than about them.

I connected with a recent post written by Micha Boyett at A Deeper Story about how her book on Benedictine spirituality has impacted how she thinks of parenting and her spiritual life:

"It’s amazing how my spiritual life mirrored my mothering life. Complete the tasks. Don’t screw up. Serve the right way. Lay down hard lines. Fail. (I always felt like I was failing.)  I have a feeling that the kind of parent we are will always mirror how we believe God sees us. The gift of the past three years in my life has been the process of letting grace sink into me. Even though I believed in grace before, it always existed underneath my internal spiritual checklists. I was frantic to please God. Before I could loose the spiritual anxiety in my mind I had to first believe that God’s grace was real enough to matter. That God could really want me, whether I was impressive or not."
I want to write a new narrative, one of grace for me and my family.

I want to believe that we all enough, and all is well enough just as it is.

I want to see that when things don't go according to plan, it may not be a failure.  Or if it is, that's okay, too.  And I want to model for my children that making mistakes does not mean that they are failures.  I want to show them grace.

I want to mark the milestones that matter, the times they make a connection and something finally sinks in.  I want to remember the times they want to hang on and see it for love instead of clinginess.  I want to celebrate each picture drawn just for me and to savor the silly times of laughing until we can barely breathe.  I want to see the grace of God in these moments.

I want to celebrate the milestone of our creative boy, who instead of throwing a fit recently when a toy was taken away as a behavioral consequence, decided to write this note instead:

I want to remember that we are all in the process of becoming, and to be grateful for my children who show me the way to grace.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At Nana's House

The kids play with a miniature ceramic tea set with broken handles on my nana's green shag carpet.  I remember the silver tea set I played with as a child, but I know it must be tarnished and hidden in the basement.  I have half a thought to go looking for it, but when I open the door to the basement, the steps are blocked with boxes that she has tossed down.  She can no longer climb the steep steps and has no way to store what won't fit upstairs.  We find trash frozen in the freezer so that it won't stink up the house until someone can come to carry it off.  I think about how fastidious she was when she was able, how we would tease her about how she wouldn't sit and talk after family meals but had to be up washing dishes and straightening up her already tidy house.  I would bring back cheap trinket souvenirs for her from our vacations until she started "hiring" me to come and dust all of her knick knacks.  Lesson learned.  But on a recent visit, she handed me a familiar plastic Shamu coffee cup for me to take home.  When I took it from her frail hand, it was heavier than I expected, and she explained that she had been filling it with her spare change for her great grandchildren.  I'm reminded of how she and my papa used to give me my weekly allowance, a five dollar bill folded neatly in thirds, and my weekly school lunch money in change in a brown paper bag, again folded in thirds, and secured with a rubber band.

My husband and I are the ones to slip them money now for the groceries and bills that Social Security doesn't fully cover.  My mom tries to refuse it, guilty and ashamed, but I remind her of the years she worked and struggled to take care of me, working multiple jobs and barely getting by.  She had nothing to put away to save as it all went to living expenses and the opportunity to provide a better future for me.  As a child I pleaded with her to give up a job so that I could see her more and wouldn't have to camp out some nights on my grandparents' pullout sofa while she worked the late shift.  I even promised that I wouldn't ask for anything for Christmas.  I realize now that must have broken her heart as she was working to pay for the roof over our head and the meals on the table.  Now I assure her that we have enough to share, that it is our pleasure, while also feeling guilty and ashamed myself that the little bits we offer aren't enough to replace her leaking roof, to provide a better life for them, to be more present and close in their lives.

Nana gave up driving years ago, but I remember having to call her when I missed the school bus in middle school and she would reluctantly drive the few miles to our house to take me to school.  It made me nervous how she would keep her feet on both the gas and brake pedals as she drove, making for a jerky ride.  She preferred to walk anyway and try to entice me for walks around the block after we ate meals at her house.  I, a chubby kid, would plead that we could drive around the block instead; pushing the pedals would be exercise, after all.  I wonder if she misses getting out.  She stays at home except for the occasional doctor's appointment.  We say she is lucky to have relatively good health and still such a sharp mind at 92, but she is longing for something better, the "golden years" she says she never really had since my grandfather died twenty years ago.

I have watched her and my mother grow closer over the couple years they have lived together, relying on one another and caring for each other in their weaknesses.  They have learned how to communicate better, to show the love that has come more easily between them and me but that has been difficult between the two of them.  We are a family of women, mostly matriarchs.  My grandmother is the oldest of six siblings, with just one baby brother among six girls.  My great-grandmother died in her nineties after outliving several husbands and lived independently until her death.  My grandmother has been widowed for over twenty years now, and my mom, my grandmother's only living child, has been alone since my dad died in his forties (I was five and my brother was eighteen at the time).  There has been much hardship, but it has born a gritty determination, a strong faith, independence, and strength in my grandmother.  I feel grateful that this, along with her love, is her legacy to me.  She is proud that I have always loved to read and learn and takes credit for this (where credit is due).

She wants me to take her dishes, the dishes I wished for years ago when we still gathered around the table regularly for family meals and holiday dinners.  They are totally impractical for our life--you can't put them in the dishwasher or microwave, they are delicate and fragile, and difficult and expensive to replace.  We have small children and a small house, so fine china has never been a necessity or even a good idea.  While I long for this connection to tradition and memories, I have resisted boxing it up.  It is a goodbye that I'm not ready to say, a marker of transitions that remain unspoken.  But there are other things I am collecting and packing up as I think about our stories and what makes up a legacy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Day Off

On Monday I took the day off.  It doesn't sound so revolutionary, but it was the second day I've had off in over a month.  I work at a university, and when I tell people this, they usually reply, "Oh, that must be so fun!  And you get the summers off!"  I try not to laugh.  My job is fun, and summers provide more breathing room, but I do work year-round.  There are weddings to officiate, reunions activities to coordinate, and I started a doctoral program this summer as well.  The summer is intended to be my catch-up time for reports, planning, and organization, but by the time the whirlwind of the spring semester ends in early June, I'm practically a zombie and spend a couple of days just staring off into space.  The quiet is as comforting as a warm blanket and I think of all the rest I'll catch up on as soon as I finish the reports and clear off my desk.  In the beginning, the summer seems to stretch endlessly ahead.  I'm not sure how it happens, but I get caught off-guard at the end of July every year.  How have two months passed?  What do I have to show for the time?  I worked full days most every day, and yet not a single item on my to-do list has been completed.  I start to mildly panic but promise myself I'll get on track.  I make charts and lists and set calendar reminders about the tasks that need to be completed.  And I ignore every single one until the middle of August.  August, then, becomes a frenzy of last-minute preparations and anxiety dreams of forgotten exams and standing naked in public.  I start to have feelings of dread and worry that nothing will work like I've planned, that I will be inadequate.

September is non-stop activity and chaos from meeting new students to catching up with old friends.  There are a ton of orientation events that I'm involved in while also restarting my programs and student groups.  The days, evenings, and weekends are full of programs and unexpected crises and before I know it, I can't remember the last time I had a break.  But the exhaustion is incapacitating, and I realize it when I start to lose my filter and my impatience shows in my words and on my face.  It's not a good attitude for a chaplain.  But what can you do when you're faced with unrelenting pastoral needs, an unexpected death, and the expectations continue to mount?  Chaplains are always on call.

I know I'm not indispensable and I'm certainly no superhero.  I need breaks and I need to take care of myself just like I encourage my students to do.  I bemoan the system that is so unnecessarily busy, and yet I fall into its trap every single time.  Some of it is unavoidable, but many times it's of my own choosing.  I like to feel needed.  I want to be accomplishing things.  Busyness becomes a bad habit that makes me feel important.  My identity is often wrapped up in what I do, an unfortunate side effect of being the people-pleasing straight A student in my earlier life.

But I realize that I desire something different.  Not something more, but something less.  I want space between my appointments, time to process and reflect.  I want walks with good friends and savoring meals instead of just using them as gripe sessions.  I long to enjoy time with my family instead of just being stressed about making time for togetherness like it's an inconvenience.  I want Sabbath time to truly be grateful for work that calls me and exhausts me, even as I'm filled yet again with the sacredness and joy of it.  I need to be reminded that it's not about what I do, but who I am.  As I use my gifts to serve God and others and I hope to be a model that we don't have to do it all.  We are valuable, we are accepted, we are loved as we are.  We are enough.

The thing about pushing on without a break is that you start to think that it's never enough.  There's always one more task to accomplish, one more way to better yourself.  Exhaustion becomes a status symbol, until it becomes a liability.  It was only in stepping away that I realized that it's not about me at all.  I cannot control things by my presence, regardless of how I think otherwise.  My absence shows me that the world continues on, and that's actually freedom.  I can take care of myself and that doesn't make me weak, but can be a model of strength and faith for those I serve.  In my work, I talk a lot about finding sanctuary in our busy lives, but I'm realizing that the most important thing is finding it within our selves.  Most times it means stopping what I feel is the "important" work and just doing a little less.